The Borg are somewhat unique in the pantheon of Star Trek species. While not the first to be portrayed as villainous or antagonistic, they are the first to be designed explicitly to fill that role from the beginning, and nothing else (or at least the first successful attempt at this, given the Ferengi are in some ways a rough draft of the Borg). In spite of the kind of stereotypical “planet of hats” jokes, every other alien culture in Star Trek, even the Original Series Klingons, was created to have more than one facet about them. Not the Borg though: They were very clearly designed to be an enemy the crew couldn’t debate or reason with intellectually, only fight with old-fashioned weapons and pray they could run away from relatively unscathed.
You can read this as beneficial or harmful depending on your perspective. One way you might defend this is to argue that, as such fitting metaphors for the engines of capitalism, it’s good that the Borg are a faceless evil who exist just to get blown apart by phaser blasts. After all, you’d want no quarter for the oppressing hegemony: It’s irresponsible to borderline collaborator levels to portray the kind of captailism the Borg represent as anything other than utterly irredeemable. However there’s also the small fact that these are sentient beings, not monsters you can take pot-shots at in low-rent action sci-fi, and it’s no less reactionary when Star Trek turns the Borg into their version of cannon fodder to satiate the bloodlust of a certain subset of its fanbase who really just wants brainless military science fiction where they can run through corridors shooting things. This is, for example, pretty much the default mode of depicting the Borg from about 1996 onwards, and it’s a hard sell to claim that did Star Trek any real favours.
So in that sense “I, Borg” is an important and necessary story to do. By putting a face to the faceless enemy it humanizes them (literally, in Hugh’s case) and points out the insularity and shortsightedness bound up in all forms of hate. Michael Piller is quit right to extol the virtues of this episode on that count, and to say this is a very Star Trek message to deliver. But as much as this episode might get praised for those reasons, it’s not quite as simple as some might want it to be and we can’t, in my opinion, go patting ourselves on the back for a job well done just yet. “I, Borg” for me is something of an inverse of “Cost of Living” and “Imaginary Friend”, and kind of an outlier in my history with Star Trek: The Next Generation on the whole. While those were episodes I always remembered strongly that turned out to be nowhere near as good as I though they were, this is a story that’s always been pretty iconic for me and that I can fully understand why it gets the praise it does…But I just can’t bring myself to like it and have never been able to.
Obviously Guinan and Captain Picard are off in right wing hawk fantasy land here, quite casually contemplating open genocide, and that’s kind of a big deal. Michael Piller was of course in love with this idea, saying “I think it’s just a great premise which forces both Guinan and Picard to confront their own prejudices. And you would think these are two characters who have none, but when it comes to the Borg the old issue is ‘know your enemy’”. Dramatically, of course, it makes sense for them to harbour at least some bigotry towards the Borg: Picard is supposed to be of a transitional generation while Guinan is ageless, and both bear scars from what they did to their respective lives, wiping out Guinan’s people and forcing the survivors into refugee camps and assimilating Picard and forcing him to give him their knowledge of Earth’s defense systems in order to launch the attack at Wolf 359. I’m still not sure even circumstances this traumatic would lead someone to advocate exterminating an entire species, but maybe I have too much faith in the human condition. Maybe it’s my own personal biases, but I simply cannot see these characters ever coming up with a plan like this.
This is also another decent, though not exceptional, Geordi and Beverly story as they’re the first ones to realise Hugh’s value as an individual and turn against the plan to make him a carrier for the anti-Borg virus. A plan which, I should point out, never should have gotten as far as it did, but I going to set that aside for now and come back to it a little later. It makes sense that they would feel this way, given their status and positionalities as scientists and teachers. I’m a bit upset (well, comparatively speaking), that Geordi wasn’t the first one to bond with Hugh and needed to be swayed by Beverly, but it more or less works as written I suppose. The larger issue is, of course, that apparently everyone else on the Enterprise is 100% OK with mass genocide, and I have a pretty hard time accepting that.
This is no utopian story about conflict resolution and moving beyond bigotry like “The Wounded” was as the stakes are so horrifically, cartoonishly high there’s no real room for that kind of nuance. And I know nobody remembers it, but didn’t Captain Picard call out Kevin Uxbridge for grief-induced genocide way the hell back in “The Survivors”? And no, he isn’t allowed to be hypocritical because it’s the Borg this time and OMG look at the wonderful conflict-If you’re opposed to genocide, you pretty much have to be opposed to it on principle. You don’t get to debate it. There’s no conditional genocide clause, in spite of what United States foreign policy might have you believe.
In spite of the heinousness of the topic, the issues I have with “I, Borg” are really just an extension of the issues I had with “Cost of Living” and “Imaginary Friend”. My big problem, as you’ve probably been able to surmise, is that this is happening to the Enterprise crew. Had Picard’s role here been filled by any nameless Starfleet bureaucrat that would have been one thing: That’s the kind of order Starfleet Command would give, but it’s also the kind of order the Enterprise crew should be questioning and standing against. This is a constant problem this creative team in its myriad incarnations has had since the third season and has become endemic this season: Treating the main cast as if they’re the establishment instead of a progressive force.
It’s episodes not just like this one and “Cost of Living”, but also episodes like “The Offspring” and just about everything to do with Ro Laren (and looking ahead to next season, “Relics”) as well, that really get under my skin. Yes I know you can read Captain Picard’s attitudes here as an extension of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” and “Family”. Yes I know that makes good drama. But I don’t care because I don’t like it. This is not what I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation to see. That’s not what I personally feel this show is about, and really, what it’s even very good at. I get that these characters were never very popular with writers for a great many reasons, but you know what? That isn’t the charcters’ fault. That’s the fault of uncreative, imagination-starved jobbers and fanboys who never wanted to give Star Trek: The Next Generation the chance to be itself. You can talk my ear off about dramatic fiction writing 101 until you’re blue in the face, but that will never change my opinion that absolutely none of that ever applied to Star Trek: The Next Generation in the first place.
I think what it comes down to is that I just really don’t like the Picard/Borg story arc. I think by now it’s become the biggest, highest profile violation of this show’s ethical and philosophical core that exists. If you want my opinion on a better way this story could have been handled, and I’m going to presume since you’re here you at least wouldn’t mind reading it, here’s how I think you could have done the Picard/Borg arc without compromising Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s utopianism. Recall that Michael Piller’s original idea for “The Best of Both Worlds” was to respond to received fan wisdom at the time that Captain Picard was too aloof and stoic and not human enough (meaning he wasn’t a clone of Captain Kirk). So the whole idea of having him assimilated by the Borg was proof by absence: Show what Picard would look like if he was really stripped of his humanity.
After you bring him back though, the best way to drive this theme home was to have him act even more “human”. Here I don’t mean “human” in the sense the writing team probably does (meaning a deeply flawed, yet lovable and badass asshole), but a *utopian* vision of humanity: Picard should be the one to show the Borg mercy. He should forgive them. As the final proof of the return of his humanity, Picard should extend a hand to the Borg to try and help them reclaim their “humanity” too (and to hedge against any errant anthropocentrism, you can substitute that placeholder phrase for whatever descriptors you personally think evoke empathy and emotional maturity). Picard should be the first one onboard with what Geordi and Beverly try to do here, and the rest of the crew ought to be right there with him. In those circumstances, Hugh’s story becomes about how the Enterprise crew helps him break free of the shackles of capitalism to discover his own identity, in much the same way they’ve helped so many visitors before him. That’s how you do a story about utopian conflict resolution.
And yet I’ll still grant you all the mileage you want that this episode as aired is a functional piece of drama. I’ve always been aware of “I, Borg”’s stature within the fandom, and I can see why. Like I said, it’s always been an iconic story for me even though I don’t particularly enjoy it. There was a Hugh action figure made by Playmates I was always aware of (I think I even made up a story involving him where he joined the Enterprise crew, probably as a subconscious reaction against this episode), and there were a lot of publicity stills from this shoot that showed up in the various magazines and reference books I had. And this episode sets up a lot from a continuity perspective too: It leads directly into the “Descent” two parter, which as of this writing I still remember as one of my favourite stories, and it also lays the groundwork for one subplot in Michael Jan Friedman’s “War and Madness” summer event miniseries. Although that might be damning with faint praise, as “War and Madness” is probably my least favourite of the DC line’s summer event miniseries.
Look, I’ll be perfectly straightforward with you all. When it comes to material like this, the best, most sophisticated critique I can muster is “I don’t like it”. I don’t like watching this kind of story. I don’t like seeing these characters behaving this way. This is not the way I imagine these people to be. And I don’t care how many overtures you can make to the textual quality of “I, Borg”: The fact remains this is not something I’m going to willingly sit down to watch to pass an evening’s time.